“It was 20 years ago today…”

Cigars and a circle change

Cigars and a circle change

Manny opener

Manny being Manny…in 1994

The Home Opener is hands down the biggest baseball day of the year in each Major League city. No matter the town,  the game is sold out1. It is the one time that every team play in front of a house packed full of their own fans. Bunting is all around the park. Excitement is in the air. Balloons. It is just flat out American: Hot dogs, cracker jacks, peanuts, beer, and Opening Day baseball.

I am fortunate enough to have grown up in a family where baseball was king. My father would take me out of school for the Home Opener every year. My older brother, my pops, and I would be down at the old Municipal Stadium for that game rain or shine—it was a rite of passage in the Dery household. On Opening Day, we would be surrounded by fans in our upper deck seats on the third base side. A week later, we would have the entire section to ourselves, but man was Opening Day glorious. It didn’t matter if Jerry Browne was playing second or the speedy Miguel Dilone was in center field, we were just happy that baseball was back.

The days of seeing bad teams in a horrible stadium came to an end in 1994. Twenty years ago today, April 4, 1994, the first Opening Day in the history of the beautifully constructed Jacobs Field was played. I remember it like it was yesterday.

1994 opener

TD still wears that same necklace. True story.

I was a Senior in High School and my brother was a Junior in College. We sat in what would become our custom family seats for the next 10 years when the four of us were all together. In section 162 row K was my dad, as always, on the aisle. My mother was next to him, followed by my brother, and finally me. (This was the same configuration we sat in for Browns games.) The sun was big and bright all day long. It was hard to concentrate on the actual game because we were all so in awe of our new surroundings. We were actually in this particular park in our city? We were this close to the action and not seemingly miles away from the field? The seats were actually turned towards the plate? There were cup holders? A gigantic scoreboard with an actual video screen? The 19-foot “mini-monster” in left field?

***

My father, ever the baseball purist, refused to go to the “dress rehearsal” exhibition game two days prior because he wanted to go in fresh, like Frank Costanza with Firestorm. Here was a man who walked in and grinned from ear to ear at the sites and sounds of this packed stadium. It was like he was reborn as a baseball fan again. He had spent the first 52 tears of his life watching the National Pastime at the “Mistake By the Lake” which was a much worse place to see baseball than football. It was cavernous and 95% of the time, close to empty. I am 38 and I vividly remember baseball at Municipal Stadium—it was a dreadful place no matter where you were seated. Those days were now long gone, and my dad couldn’t have been happier.

We arrived early, not wanting to miss a thing and making sure we had our bearings. It was brisk but the sun helped warmed us. I rocked my new Tribe “Script I” hat backwards and sat in my seat to watch the pagentry unfold. President Bill Clinton tossed out the first pitch ((He wopuld later fly to Charlotte to watch his beloved Arkansas Razorbacks win the NCAA Basketball title that night.)). Balloons filled the sky. Rookie outfielder Manny Ramirez went to the wrong end of the receiving line when his announced was with the rest of the team2. The crowd ate it all up with a spoon.

Nobody in that stadium had any idea of what was to come that day, that season, or for the next eight seasons which would later be remembered in Cleveland as “The Era of Champions.”

Cigars and a circle change

Cigars and a circle change

You remember, this was a young Indians team who had just finished 6th in the old AL East, winning just 76 games. But not only was it a new era in Cleveland, it was a who new situation in the game of baseball. 1994 was the first year of the three division and Wild Card format. The Tribe moved away from the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Baltimore Orioles, and took up shop with teams more their speed in the newly formed AL Central. The expectation was that the Tribe would be better, but it wasn’t known exactly how much.

“When I first saw Jacobs Field a few days before the 1994 season opener, it knocked my socks off,” said legendary Tribe shortstop Omar Vizquel. “Everything was first class…I felt as if I had died and gone to Cooperstown.”

With a new stadium and excitement surrounding the ballclub, veterans Eddie Murray, Dennis Martinez, and Jack Morris joined the fun. The core group of young hitters was just beginning to emerge. But on that day, they had to face one of the toughest pitchers in the game, Randy Johnson. The Big Unit and his Seattle Mariners were the first team to try and tackle the architectural beauty on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

The place was jumping when El Presidente fired a strike past Seattle’s Rich Amaral for the first pitch in the history of the new park. That electricity however was quickly short circuited when Martinez loaded the bases with one out when he hit Edgar Martinez and then walked both Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay Buhner. Eric Anthony’s sacrifice fly accounted for the game’s (and stadium’s) first run. Anthony’s solo homer in the third took even more wind out of our collective sails. But what were two runs anyway? Nothing, right?

Except there was one problem for the Tribe. A big problem. A six-foot-10 problem named Randy Johnson.

“Only in Cleveland” was being heard everywhere inside of Jacobs Field when The Big Unit carried a no-hitter into the bottom of the eighth innng. The last pitcher to toss a no-no on Opening Day? None other than Tribe legend Bob Feller, who did so in 1940. Candy Maldonado led off the inning with a walk, Johnson’s fifth of the day. Then, it happened: Sandy Alomar Jr., the Tribe’s All-Star catcher singled to right, breaking up Johnson’s no-hit bid. Feller’s mark would hang for another year, and the 40,000 plus in attendance rose to their feet and finally had something to cheer about on the actual field of play. We had all been so happy just to be there, but we had to win this one, didn’t we?

Up stepped 22-year-old phenom right fielder named Manny Ramirez who at the time was still fighting Wayne Kirby for the regular gig. Seems insane to even think they were in a battle, but nevertheless that;s what was going on at the time. Manny did what Manny would do so many times the rest of his career—he came through. Ramirez’s double to left scored two and we all went from doom and gloom to pure jubilation now that we had ourselves a new ballgame at 2-2.

Naturally, Manny was picked off of second, a killer first out of the inning.

The game would remain tied and head into extra innings. As the game grew longer, my poor brother had to catch his flight back to Syracuse. There weren’t exactly lots of flight options from Cleveland to Syracuse 20 years ago and he hung on as long as he could.

In the top of the 10th, reliever Jose Mesa, not yet the Tribe closer, would come out for his second inning of work. Griffey got on board with an infield single and was bunted over to second by Buhner3. On came lefty Derek Lilliquist to face the three lefties due up: Anthony, Tino Martinez, and ex-Indian Reggie Jefferson, who was traded with shortstop Felix Fermin that offseason for a shortstop you may have heard of by the name of Omar Vizquel.

After a two-out walk to Martinez, Seattle Manager Lou Pinella pulled back Jefferson for right-handed outfielder Keith Mitchell. Manager Mike Hargrove stuck with Lilliquist despite having right-hander Eric Plunk ready in the pen and it burned him. Mitchell singled in Griffey.

It was at that point my brother and mother headed for the exits and Hopkins airport. Unfortunately for them, they would miss the birth of what was then referred to as “Jacobs Field Magic.”

In the bottom of the 10th, nobody (except for my brother and mother) had left. We all had to see how this multiple act play would draw to a close. With one out, Mariner reliever Bobby Ayala walked Ramirez. Hargove went to his bench, lifting Ramirez for a pinch runner in Kirby. He also gave a bat to 23-year-old Jim Thome, who sat in favor of Mark Lewis with The Big Unit on the mound.  After Thome was announced, Pinella called for his lefty Kevin King. Our man The Thomenator greeted King rudely with a ringing double to right. Jeff Newman put the breaks on Kirby and held him at third. An intentional walk to Kenny Lofton loaded the bases for Vizquel.

At the time, I remember thinking to myself I have never been to a baseball game with this much drama, with this many people this invested. It was quite a departure from watching Ernie Camacho try and close out a save with 2,000 of my closest friends in a 78,000 seat monstrosity.

Vizquel’s fielder’s choice would tie the game 3-3 and on to the 11th we went. I was spent. We all were spent, but all I could think of was my brother in the car missing this.

After Eric Plunk retired the Mariners in order, the final act played out. With one out, the old crafty veteran Murray took King’s first pitch to the wall in center for a line shot double. Paul Sorrento’s fly out, which moved Murray to third, was out number two. Would we go longer? Could the 40,000 plus take much more drama? We weren’t used to this…yet.

PDWith first base open and the lefty Kirby in the on deck circle, King intentionally walked Sandy. I loved Wayne Kirby. He was the perfect fourth outfielder for those teams in the mid-90s. Wayne was a smart, patient hitter with good hands. He got ahead of King in the count 3-1, then became a hero for a lifetime when he singled the other way for the first of many, many, walk off Indians wins inside of Jacobs/Progressive Field.

“The Jake,” as they called it the, exploded. Literally nobody knew what to do with themselves. We all spilled out into the streets of downtown Cleveland with the excitement of a big Browns Sunday win. Only this time, we didn’t just have seven or six or five home games left, there were 80 more to be played.

The 1994 home opener was literally the rebirth of baseball in Cleveland. The game had it all. The sun and the late afternoon shadows of the now famous “toothbrush” lights, a packed house, an amped up crowd, a nemesis fireballing pitcher, a comeback, another comeback, and a walk off winner.

“It was a script they couldn’t even have written in Hollywood,” said the late owner Dick Jacobs after that memorable 4-3 11 -inning win. “It couldn’t have been better. Our guys came through in exemplary fashion, which really made me happy for the folks in the community.

The players got it too. Right then and there.

“That first game atmosphere was really something,” said Tribe pitcher Charles Nagy. “We had never seen such excitement in Cleveland. Starting that day, we really couldn’t wait to get to the ballpark every day.”

The place may be 20 years old and in need of some updating, but nobody can ever take away those memories of the first Opening Day what came soon thereafter. Lets hope the weather holds up today and the 2014 Tribe can give those of us in attendance today some new memories we can talk about 20 years from now.

___________________________________________________

Footnotes:

  1. Yes, even in Miami []
  2. Talk about a foreshadowing of things to come. []
  3. Did Jay Buhner really lay down a sac bunt? Somewhere, Eric Wedge was very upset. []
  • Ezzie Goldish

    Great piece. I was 10 years old at the time, and I’ll never forget Kirby knocking in that run (or that Johnson was throwing a no-no, ugh).

  • mgbode

    1994 was an amazing year for the Tribe. The year it all turned around. And, I am still absolutely livid that the year ended in a strike w/o a WS and that the White Sox were 1 game ahead in our battle with them at the time they called the season.

    For the opening day, I absolutely remember Sandy breaking up the no-no and it was one of the many moments that led to his legendary status with the team/fans. I agree that the love of him is not matched by his production, but he had so many little moments like this one that he earned that status all the same (sort of like how Brantley is doing it with the modern day Tribe).

  • Harv 21

    I was in the bleachers, shocked at the (relatively) good sightlines. Kept staring at the beautiful architecture of the park – the tall windows of the restaurant and the skyline seen from behind the plate made me wonder if this was really where they’d play. You’re right – the atmosphere was just electric. And man, was Randy Johnson unhittable.

    My favorite memory is the bleacher fans razzing Griffey relentlessly. Everyone was thrilled we were close enough to the players to be heard. But it was opening day and he was digging it too: at one point he turned his head around, gave the crowd a beautiful happy smile and friendly little finger wave and won everybody over, just like that. Just a great day.

  • http://twitter.com/bbo13 B-bo

    To this day I have no doubt we would have overtaken the Sox for the division–it was just that kind of season and squad. Might be the last time I had that sort of positive confidence in any Cleveland team.

  • Harv 21

    absolutely. Way more sure of that then the current claims that the “Miracle at Richfield” Cavs would have won another playoff series against Dave Cowens, et al plus a finals round if only Chones hadn’t pulled up lame. That ’94 Indians team wasn’t winning fortuitous squeakers, they were starting to roll everyone before the season was cancelled and the White Sox were feeling the heat.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Hard to believe it’s been 20 years all those championships make it seem like just yesterday. Which reminds me the defending world champion receive their rings today so all of you at the Indians opener make sure you DVR it on MLB Network.

    That photo ex-President Bill Clinton or “The Pimp” as I refer to him reminds me of how the Indians had to find him a lid without Chief Wahoo because the President didn’t want to wear anything with The Chief on it. Cue the public protests for 2014!

  • Natedawg86

    Hopefully your bro was listening to Hammy on the radio. I am sure it was awesome. Figures one of our best seasons get cut by a strike

  • mgbode

    I still don’t know how we made it out of that stretch. The strike ending our first good season in 38years, losing the WS the next year, the Browns moving, and the Price/Daugherty/Nance era being replaced with those terrible uniforms and Fratello-tempo teams.

    Oh yeah, I remember now, it was due to the Tribe bashing in seemingly 8 runs a game and dominating a bad division for a decade in a beautiful ballpark that was packed like it was opening day every single night. Good times :)

  • MrCleaveland

    TD, I enjoyed every word of that.

  • JB100

    Good piece. Love that picture of Manny being pointed to the other end
    of the line. The Jake is a beauty, no doubt, a great place for
    baseball and a jewel for our city. Not everyone liked Muni, but it
    was, to me, a pure Cleveland place — brick, concrete, cast iron,
    hardback wooden seats, cigar smoke, beer, maybe just a faint whiff of
    urine. Solid to the ground. Many, many good memories there. Here’s to
    a great Opening Day 2014 …

  • humboldt

    TD, your pieces just shatter me…moist eyes at work, thanks a lot. Plus a Beatles reference in the title – immaculate

  • Kildawg

    Thrilling read. I actually saw the Big Unit pitch back in 2004 when he was with the Dbacks against the Padres (David Wells was his mound opponent). Game was won with Giles waiting on deck (obviously as a pinch hitter).

  • Joe Bialek

    This issue is the absurdity of absurdities. Let me get this straight: the
    purpose of the Sin Tax is to gouge those who purchase alcohol and cigarettes
    not because anyone is trying to discourage consumption but rather so the
    County can use that money to pay for sports stadiums that do not produce
    anything but a fleeting moment witnessing the passing of a football, the
    dribbling of a basketball and the throwing of a baseball so that such a
    minute tidbit of diversion can be enjoyed by all. The stupidity of this
    proposition is enough to make your head spin even though the spin doctors
    advocating passage of this nonsense are already doing a pretty good job of
    hypnotizing the voters to actually consider supporting it. At least the
    Robber Barons of the previous centuries provided something tangible such as
    oil, steel, railroads etcetera. These team owners do not even provide one
    tangible thing that could ever be considered with the term “value added.”
    Almost everyone discusses this “enterprise” as though it is the same thing
    as industry {which it is not}. The price of admission is essentially a
    voluntary tax paid by those who can afford it to pay those who don’t need
    it. If this isn’t a transfer of wealth I don’t know what is.

    The real outrage here is the fact that taxes on alcohol and cigarettes will
    not be used to aid in the reduction of addiction {hence the reference to
    “sin”} but rather to stuff the pockets of all three teams who could easily
    afford to pay for the repairs themselves. The vote was rammed through the
    last time {under somewhat suspicious circumstances} and hear we go again.
    But this time…not so fast!!! We the voters of Cuyahoga County are going to
    fight the proponents on this one and we don’t care if the teams up and go
    somewhere else {please see my views on entertainment below} because quite
    frankly there are simply more important things than sports and the unearned
    money that comes with it. Those in public office who are too stupid and lazy
    to find other ways to grow a major American city need to resign and leave
    their self-seeking political ambitions on the scrapheap of history. Don’t
    ever let it be said that this was time when the tide ran out on Cuyahoga
    County but rather was the time when the voters rose up to welcome the rising
    tide of change and rebuked this pathetic paradigm our previous elected
    leaders embraced. Let the battle be joined.

    And now to the real underlying issue at hand:

    One of the most disturbing facts about our capitalist nation is the
    misappropriation of funds directed to the salaries of entertainers. Everyone
    should agree that the value an athlete, movie star, talk-show host,
    team-owner, etcetera brings to the average citizen is very small. Granted,
    they do offer a minuscule of diversion from our daily trials and
    tribulations as did the jesters in the king’s court during the middle ages.
    But to allow these entertainers to horde such great amounts of wealth at the
    expense of more benevolent societal programs is unacceptable. They do not
    provide a product or a service so why are they rewarded as such?

    Our society is also subjected to the “profound wisdom” of these people
    because it equates wealth with influence. Perhaps a solution to this problem
    and a alternative to defeated school levies, crumbling infrastructures, as
    well as all the programs established to help feed, clothe and shelter those
    who cannot help themselves would be to tax this undeserved wealth.
    Entertainers could keep 1% of the gross earnings reaped from their endeavor
    and 99% could be deposited into the public coffers.

    The old ideas of the redistribution of wealth have failed, and it is time to
    adapt to modern-day preferences. People put their money into entertainment
    above everything else; isn’t it time to tap that wealth? Does anyone think
    this will reduce the quality of entertainment? It seems to me that when
    entertainers received less income, the quality was much higher.

  • Jared in LA

    What a frenzy. Like your article says, I remember Ramirez doubling off the wall and getting picked off of second the very next pitch (well, yet to be pitched). I vividly remember Hegan or Corrigan calling the game on TV and saying “get back Manny!” as he was getting picked off. That was true Manny style right there, make an amazing play then be a clown on the base paths. So much fun that year.

  • humboldt

    Ohio State football (sans Michigan losses) was somewhat of a salve as well during that dark stretch. Plus, we were still bathing in the glow of the Crunch’s multiple indoor soccer championships ;)

  • Toddyus

    In the summer of ’93, I had just graduated high school and had a job in commercial construction hauling materials to and from job sites. Jacobs Field was one of the jobs we working on (Rock Hall, too), so I regularly made trips up there while it was being built.

    Someday when I’m old and they’re tearing down the stadium, I’ll remember the day I got there just as my guys were taking lunch (union). I had no choice, but to hang out and wait for them. Lucky for me, while I was waiting, they were raising the foul poles. Even then, I remember thinking it was memorable. I truly can’t believe that’s over 20 years ago.